Understanding Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a therapy that uses mild electricity to treat pain. A TENS machine is a small gadget with wires. The wires attach to sticky electrode pads placed on your body. The machine then sends electricity to areas of your body through the pads.
How to say it
Why TENS is done
TENS can help ease:
Pain after surgery
Arthritis or other joint pain
Other types of chronic body aches and pains
TENS therapy is still being studied to understand how it works. It may work by interfering with pain signals moving along nerves on their way to the brain. Or it may work by activating chemicals in the body (endorphins) that can reduce pain. TENS pain relief is short-term (temporary). So the treatment can be done as often as needed.
How TENS is done
TENS therapy can be done in a medical office or physical therapy clinic. Or you may be shown how to do it at home. During treatment:
Your skin will be cleaned in the areas where the electrode pads will go. Your hair may be trimmed.
The healthcare provider puts electrode pads on or near the area of pain, or on other places on your body. He or she may put a gel on the pads first.
The provider attaches wires to the electrodes and to the TENS machine.
The machine sends electrical signals to the electrode pads. You will likely have a tingling or prickly feeling in the area. Tell the healthcare provider if you feel burning instead.
The machine has controls for changing the signals from weak to strong as needed. The healthcare provider may try different levels to see which works best for you. If stronger electricity is used, you may feel nearby muscles twitching.
Your treatment may last from 30 to 60 minutes. After the treatment, the TENS machine is turned off and the electrodes are removed. You may need the treatment 2 to 3 times a day.
Risks of TENS
Skin irritation at the electrode sites
Allergic rash (dermatitis) from electrodes, adhesive, or gel
Electrical skin burns at the electrode sites
Breakdown of a pacemaker or another implanted device
TENS is not recommended if:
You are pregnant or think you may be pregnant
You have epilepsy or a history of abnormal heart rhythm
You have a pacemaker or other metal implant in your body
March 21, 2017
Chou R, et al. Management of Postoperative Pain. Journal of Pain. 2016 February 1;17(2):131-57., O'Conner TC, et al. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). In: O'Conner TC, editor. Atlas of Pain Injection Techniques. 2 ed. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2014. p. 111-2., Sluka KA, et al. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). In: Krames ES, editor. Neuromodulation. Philadelphia: Elsevier; 2009. p. 335-44., White RD, et al. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, Phonophoresis, and Iontophoresis. In: Pfenniger JL, editor. Pfenninger and Fowler's Procedures for Primary Care. 3 ed. Philadelphia: Mosby; 2011. p. 1568-74.
Shelat, Amit M, DO, MPA, FACP,Ziegler, Olivia, MS, PA